It’s hard to say exactly what made me decide to start trying to live a low-waste lifestyle, but I have to say, learning that there is an immeasurable amount of plastic called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch floating in our ocean was a huge influence. I think everyone should know about the GPGP and how a low-waste lifestyle is the solution to the problem.
What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
The GPGP is a huge swirling mass of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, just above the Hawaiian Islands. When trash and plastic make it to the ocean it gets pushed along ocean “highways” caused by wind and oceanic currents. It eventually settles in the calm center called the “gyre”, creating the largest garbage dump on earth.
The GPGP is often referred to as an “island”, which suggests that the garbage is easily visible and dense enough to walk on. However, the debris is mostly made up of tiny pieces of plastic suspended below the surface of the water. Plastic in the ocean doesn’t disintegrate, but it breaks down into tiny pieces through a process called photodegredation. These small pieces of plastic mix with chemical sludge from oil spills and give the affected area more of a soupy, sludgy consistency.
How big is the Great Pacific garbage patch?
Because most of the plastic is broken down into small pieces and floats below the surface of the water, the GPGP is not visible from the surface and is not photographable. This makes it difficult to determine the exact size and location of the patch.
However, many scientists and explorers have studied the patch and determined estimates of the size. The most common estimate is that the patch is about 10-20 meters in depth and larger than the size of Texas. However, many studies have suggested that the patch is much larger than that. One study estimates the GPGP to be twice the size of the continental US.
The rate at which plastic is being added to the ocean is much faster than the rate at which it can be taken out. This causes the size of the patch to only increase each year. In fact, the GPGP increased 100-fold in size during the last 40 years.
How did it get there?
All this plastic has made its way into the ocean from our wasteful and careless behaviors on land, like littering and illegal dumping. We are all responsible for the GPGP. If you consume plastic you have contributed to the GPGP. Not convinced? Here are some common items found in the GPGP:
Microbeads: Have you ever used an exfoliating face wash or body scrub? Then you have put plastic into the ocean. Those “exfoliating microbreads” are tiny bits of plastic that get washed down your drain and end up in the ocean.
Cigarette butts: If you have tossed a cigarette out of your car window or put it out on the sidewalk then you have contributed to the GPGP. Cigarette butts are the number one most common trash item found in the ocean. The cigarette you put out in the sand at the beach can make it to the ocean in a matter of minutes, but even the cigarette you toss out of your car window will eventually make its way there. Even cigarettes put in outdoor ash trays can be blown away by the wind and make it to a sewer, and eventually the ocean.
Food wrappers: Food wrappers are the second most common trash item found in the ocean. If you have ever had a snack on the beach and not felt like putting your trash in the trashcan, it likely made its way pretty quickly to the ocean. But any littered food wrappers, even those far from the ocean, can eventually end up there.
Plastic bags: Disposable plastic bags are light-weight and easily become airborne. Even if you thought you disposed of your bags correctly, many bags can get picked up by the wind during transportation and end up in storm drains and eventually the ocean.
Why is this a problem?
All this plastic in the ocean ends up in the stomachs of marine animals like sea turtles, dolphins, and seals. Even animals as small as zooplankton have been found to consume plastic.
Animals ingest plastic when they mistake it for food or when it gets scooped up into their mouths during their normal feeding process. Their bodies can’t digest the plastic so it fills up their stomach until real food can no longer fit, causing them to slowly starve to death. Other types of plastic can drown or strangle animals.
Plastic even ends up in the stomachs of marine birds and coastal animals. Albatross are common birds in the North Pacific Ocean where the garbage island is located. Studies have found that 1/3 of their chicks die from being fed plastic. Nearly all of the 1.5 million albatross in the area have plastic in their digestive systems.
This plastic ingestion affects every animal in the food chain… even us. Plastic in the ocean acts like a little sponge and absorbs all the chemical pollutants in the water, making ingested plastic even more toxic than it already is. When fish eat these chemical laden pieces of plastic, then we eat those fish, we are also ingesting those dangerous pollutants. This increases the risk of cancer and other diseases in humans.
Why can’t we clean it up?
Basically, trying to clean up all this plastic would only make things worse.
One solution, for instance, would be to use nets to scoop all the plastic out of the ocean. But, the scale of an operation like that would only produce more pollution than it would remove. It may be hard to understand the extent of the GPGP because the size of the ocean and the affected area is unfathomable. To put it into perspective, NOAA says that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than 1% of the North Pacific Ocean. The carbon dioxide emissions from sending out than many ships would do more environmental damage than good. Plus, more animals could be killed by the nets than by the plastic, which would make the benefit hard to see.
Because this problem lies in the ocean, no single nation wants to take responsibility for it. The clean up would be an expensive undertaking and no one wants to foot the bill. Charles Moore, the man who discovered the garbage patch during a sailing race, says that cleaning up the garbage patch would bankrupt any country. The only way that the world can afford to clean up the garbage island is if every country unites in the effort and contributes what they can. No single country is responsible for getting the garbage there, so no single country should have to pay to clean it up. But our world’s nations just haven’t found it a priority to join together in the effort to clean our oceans.
What can we do about it?
Waiting for funding and for a viable cleanup solution is not a practical way to deal with the problem. Scientists agree that the best way to get rid of the patch is to eliminate our use of disposable plastics and increase our use of biodegradable materials. We need to focus on reducing the amount of plastic that we are putting into the ocean. If we could just stop adding to the problem then a variety of natural processes will eventually get rid to the garbage and plastic.
So here are the things you personally can do to have an impact:
Live a zero-waste or low-waste lifestyle. The less waste you produce the less waste there is to potentially reach the ocean.
Stop buying plastic. Like I alway say, buying is voting. Even if the plastic products that you use don’t reach the ocean, your purchases are encouraging companies to produce products made out of plastic. This problem would not be as bad as it is if the garbage reaching the ocean eventually biodegraded, or was digestible by marine animals. The problem is plastic doesn’t go anywhere. Once it hits the ocean it’s staying there. So stop buying it, stop using it, stop throwing it away.
Do not litter. Litter eventually makes it to the ocean. Even if it starts no where near an ocean. Be very conscious of everything you throw on the ground or out of the car window. Cigarette butts and candy wrappers might seem small, but when everyone is littering them it adds up a huge problem. Be a positive influence to those around you and never litter.